“Voices from the Past, Documents from the History of Bowdoin,” Timothy Foster, Dean of Student Affairs


Paul H. Douglas

One hundred years ago, a young man who “grew up in a log cabin in the heart of the Maine woods” was about to begin his senior year at Bowdoin.

Paul’s youth was spent around lumberjacks and railroad men; hard labor and isolation in what was still very much the wilderness of central Maine.

“Our life was primitive,” Paul would later write. “With the help of a cow and a sad horse, we produced nearly all that we consumed…although poor, we never realized it.”

Paul’s early education came in the form of borrowed books and newspapers.

As a child, he witnessed things that would shape his views and propel his passion for change. Each year, at the end of the log drive, lumberjacks emerging from a long winter in the woods would, as Paul described it, “burst upon Bangor like hordes of Goths upon Rome.”

At an early age, Paul observed that “the institutions of civilization…were chiefly financed by taking advantage of the moral, social, and economic weaknesses of the poor and ignorant.”

In September 1909, Paul brought his already developing political views to Brunswick, then a mill town with sharp class distinctions. He found Bowdoin to be conservative in politics and economics, but as he would later write, the College “nevertheless had a broad tolerance and a willingness to consider new ideas.”

All of those new ideas were, at first, something of a struggle for Paul. “My preparation had been faulty,” he remembered years later, “and I was thrown off balance by the new world into which I was plunged.”

Sophomore year a family illness sapped the resources available to Paul. He got a variety of odd jobs as a railroad baggage handler, lumberjack, and door-to-door salesman, and with a small scholarship, cobbled together the funds necessary to stay at the College. He also got serious about his education. “It was a Spartan life, but the bracing need for self-reliance stimulated me.”

It was at Bowdoin that this young man from the Maine woods first developed a passion for economics.
His other passion was football—an experience that he described as providing “the most thrilling experience of college life… I learned how the human body can absorb terrific punishment and yet come through it all if the spirit can be kept determined and aflame.”

While at Bowdoin, he later said, “I began to be a social reformer.” He studied philosophy and ethics, joined the debate team, and honed the skills, judgment, and tenacity that would later define his life and career.

So, just who is this Phi Beta Kappa Bowdoin graduate…this member of the Class of 1913…and why do we remember him today?

At Bowdoin, Douglas (third from left, in back) developed a passion for football.

Paul would go on to complete graduate work in economics at Columbia and Harvard. In 1920 he joined the faculty at the University of Chicago, where he distinguished himself as a teacher and prolific scholar, and was elected president of the American Economics Association.

His academic work attracted the attention of leaders in business and government, and he was elected to the Chicago City Council where he was often on the losing end of votes that were 49 to 1!

Still, Chicago’s ward politicians never doubted his commitment or questioned his fairness or integrity.
In 1942 he was soundly defeated as the anti-machine candidate for the U.S. Senate.

The very next day, with World War II in full fury, he enlisted in the Marine Corps as a private. He was a 50 year old and a Quaker with poor eyesight. “…I have enlisted in the Marines as a private,” Paul wrote to Bowdoin Dean Paul Nixon. “Despite my years and the severity of the training, I hope I can make a good soldier. I could not sit on the sidelines in this war.”

Dean Nixon was stunned.“Dear Paul, Your Marines’ Privacy comes pretty close to astounding me. I think you’ll make a good anything. But there are a lot of anythings I should think you’d be better at than this job.”

Later, when Douglas was wounded in the Pacific, fighting alongside much younger Bowdoin grads Andrew Haldane and Everett Pope, Dean Nixon wrote again: “Isn’t it about time that you withdrew your ancient bones from that particular occupation? If you don’t, I shall admire everything about you except your good judgment.”

A second wound on Okinawa permanently crippled Paul’s left arm and ended his military career.He returned home a decorated veteran, and in 1948, Paul was elected to the U.S. Senate from his adopted state of Illinois.

Less than three years later, the Washington press corps selected him as the nation’s best senator. He was known as the “conscience of the Senate”; a “fighting liberal” ahead of his time who was on the losing end of many legislative battles but who never tired of introducing the same bills year after year.

He had no patience for those who refused to fight for their beliefs.

Paul’s childhood in Maine had taught him that one person can always make a difference, but he was also a realist who understood that change takes place gradually. “Remembering how attempts to cure or even improve [social] conditions on a wholesale or universal scale in the past had only resulted in failure, I tried to satisfy myself with taking a series of small steps.”

At 6’ 3”, 220 pounds, Paul was a dominant physical presence in the Senate, but he preferred to have others take credit for his successes.

The Chicago Daily News noted in the mid 1970s that “much of the most significant legislation of the last two decades bears his mark, but not his mention.”

Paul was a prophet before his time. Civil rights, housing reform, aid to education, worker’s rights, tax reform, Medicare, and environmental causes were what he cared about and what he fought for over an 18-year senate career. An outspoken critic of government waste and pork barrel public works projects, Paul famously compared the prices the Pentagon was paying for items that everyone else could easily buy for a tenth of the cost.

A plaque honoring Douglas hangs in Moulton Union.

Paul once said, “To be a liberal, you don’t have to be a wastrel. It’s no virtue to waste money.”

And he annoyed his Senate colleagues by annually publishing his income, net worth and a detailed ledger of expenses, and by insisting that neither he nor his staff would accept a gift worth more that $2.50. He was doing this in the late 1940s. Are you kidding me?!?

Paul could be a vigorous political foe but he consistently avoided personal attacks, preferring to base his arguments solely on the merits of a particular issue. It was an approach not always shared by others, nor one practiced regularly today.

Paul Howard Douglas ultimately lost his Senate seat at the age of 74. He recovered quickly and continued to work for another decade on the causes he believed in.

We remember Senator Douglas today in this highly-charged political season—as a man of principle, integrity, and paradox.

As The New York Times noted upon his death in 1976, he was “a political reformer…sent to the Senate…with the help of the Chicago…machine. A Quaker by conviction, he became a decorated Marine in World War II. A country boy from a backwoods farm, he became a famous economist. He combined the moral rectitude of New England, where he was born, with the crusading liberalism of the Middle West, where he spent his adult years.”

In 1938, at the age of 46 — long before his Senate career and even before his distinguished service in the military — Paul Douglas was presented with Bowdoin’s highest honor, The Bowdoin Prize, for his groundbreaking work as an economist. A plaque with his name on it hangs just outside Main Lounge in the Moulton Union.

In the years ahead, as you walk past this wall honoring Paul Douglas and the other extraordinary men and women who have shared The Bowdoin Prize, I hope you will remember this story of Paul, his faith in the power of the human spirit, and his conviction that one person, with passion, consistent effort, and integrity, can, in fact, change the world.

Thank you for listening.